"Good luck to her, she may need it.", was the comment a wine loving Englishman made when I told him I was about to meet a woman who had just invested her life's savings in a shop. Not just any shop. A shop dedicated to English wine. To set this in context: when I tell people I blog about German wine I sometimes get the "is there such a thing?" look, or perhaps the "enjoy the Liebfraumilch" comment. These come from people who are not familiar with the wine world, otherwise they would know that some of the world's best wines come from Germany. Now imagine what the reaction is when someone dedicates their life to the cause of English wine - a cause that even wine professionals often respond to with the "is there such a thing" look. So there you have the above quoted reaction.
Enter Julia Stafford, a spirited woman who thought London could do with a shop dedicated to raise the glory of English wine: Wine Pantry at Borough market.
The first time I met Julia - through the social network Twitter, by the way, - was when she was just about to close the deal on the shop at the market. For those of you who don't know Borough Market, it is a food market in South London, close to the Thames and London Bridge, and very popular, also as tourist destination.
What makes Borough Market particularly attractive to me is that you can get excellent sourdough bread there (at De Gustibus) - while I could perhaps live without wine I am not sure I could do without proper bread. What makes it attractive for selling English wine is that not only do you get the tourists, who might buy a bottle just out of curiosity, but also locals who are prepared to pay a little extra for local produce. This is a bonus as, with the exception of sparkling wines, I sometimes find English wine a little more expensive than the competition (although this perception is slowly beginning to change).
Sparkling wine is the outstanding and best known English wine product. Despite a relatively small production, English fizz aims to take on Champagne and a growing number of international trophies attest to its success. More obscure internationally (and also in the UK), there is also a growing number of rosé, white and even red wines. Bacchus is probably the best know grape variety, but there is a range of others too - often German cross-breeds such as Huxelrebe, Reichensteiner or Kerner, but also Seyval Blanc and the Champagne grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The mention of English red wine will probably put some question marks on your face and overall rightly so - although Julia introduced me to a Pinot Noir recently that I find is not too dissimilar from a light Baden Spätburgunder (but at twice the price). So even among the still wines there is more diversity here than you might expect, and this includes oak aged wines and sweet ones too.
Wine Pantry offers an impressive selection of English wines by the bottle (also through the online shop that's under development) and by the glass, the latter to be enjoyed at the shop or while having a wander around Borough market. What makes the Wine Pantry different - if indeed it needs to be more different - is that it employs tasting machines that allow you to buy small tasting samples too.
While still relatively rare, you can see these machines more and more in wine shops that, like North London's The Sampler, allow their patrons to buy tasters from many wines on show before committing to a full bottle. This makes sense for the customer, and for the shop too as the wines are protected against the effects of oxygen by, depending on the design, vacuum or gas - so keeping a bottle "open" for days or even weeks is no problem.
The exclusive focus on English wine and the option to taste a unique range of wines, including sparklers, is what sets the Wine Pantry apart from the few other shops selling English wine - such as the "natural" wine bar Artisan & Vine in Battersea. So if you are curious about exploring the world of English wine in depth, Borough Market is the place to go - and if you visit London it is a convenient location for London Bridge and the Southbank in general.
Amusingly, the entrance and exit signs at the Wine Pantry are one - and on the floor too. Effectively, the whole front of this tiny shop opens up as the door, and so the floor is the only place the sign could go. This is one of the details of shop design that have already been taken care of, whereas other parts of the decoration are still a work in progress.
When I visited the shop they were awaiting delivery of extra shelves for the food - Wine Pantry also sells cured meats, cheeses etc. - and both the actual shop and the website need some finishing touches. Still, it was encouraging to see how far things had gotten since Julia explained the idea to me at Roast, the restaurant overlooking the market, half a year ago.
Writing about that evening would be a story in itself, and not just because of the range of English wine consumed. Mostly it would be a story about the woman who came up with the idea for Wine Pantry. It all started with, surprisingly, renewable energy and a plan for a carbon neutral pub and hotel. Eventually, to cut a long story short, her exploration of gastronomy as a business model led Julia into the world of English wine and to the Wine Pantry. What really made the evening insightful was not so much how Julia explained her story, it was more how she lived it: random people at the bar found that a blonde stranger bought them English wine, Champagne drinkers suddenly had glasses of English sparkler materialising in their hands and at some point Julia even went head-to-head with a French wine snob about the quality of English wine. If I have ever seen someone with a mission, trying to change the world (albeit glass by glass, person by person), it was Julia that night. Wine Pantry is the manifestation of that mission and it will be interesting to see what its effect on awareness of English wine may be.
Usually, when we Ramblers review a wine merchant we start with the German and Austrian wines available, then talk about wines from other countries, interesting producers, our impression of the staff and the price level compared to other, similar shops. In the case of the Wine Pantry it does not make much sense, other than to say that I don't know any place that has such a broad range of English wine available and that both Julia and Dominique will move heaven and hell to find an English wine you may like.
And with regards to English wine, well, this review is probably not the place to go on about it in detail, but I can point you to two previous articles here on the Wine Rambler: one, somewhat more personal, on how I encountered English wine, and the other is a more recent and better informed report from the 2011 tasting hosted by the English Wine Producers.
I am still tempted to conclude with a plea trying to convince you that exploring English wine can be rewarding - but if you have that sceptical look on your face (see above) another paragraph will not achieve this anyway. Luckily, I don't have to, as Julia is both more forceful and charming at this than me. So instead let me say: if you are in London, if you are interested in wine and if you want to try something you may not find elsewhere, give Wine Pantry a go.
Wine Pantry (1 Stoney Street, Borough Market, London Bridge, SE1 9AA)